Adventures of a Healthy Lifestyle Start Up—First Trip to China

Friday, August 7, 2015

Our coastal route visiting factoriesin China for Livliga
Easily put, the life of a young company is an amazing adventure. Much of it is the reality of “first time” experiences. There are also decisions you have to make in context of this fledgling business that are new to you. Up until now my careers have been about running service-oriented companies. I knew nothing about manufacturing. Now with Livliga my husband and I are learning the challenges of how to get quality products manufactured in another country, with a different language and unfamiliar ways of operating.

Because we care passionately about helping people live healthier lives, we have created dishware, serveware and glassware for adults and children to help make it easier to right size their balanced meals and feel full. These are such original designs we have them patented. What this also means is that manufacturing them requires partnering with factories to figure out how to get them produced and in a repeatable manner so we can make larger and larger quantities. Although we tried, it was not possible to have them made in America; the factories do not exist.

Getting our LivSpoons manufactured has been our biggest challenge so far. We were very naïve about the challenges of getting such a complex design fabricated. We are now on our 6th factory (not our choice but because of the management through our trading company) and it has taken us the better part of 3 years to get a sample produced in a way that it can be mass-produced. We finally realized, with increasing encouragement from other entrepreneurs, we had to go to China to work directly with the factories making our product. All along we had relied on agents to help us, believing that with the language barrier we were better off relying on them to translate, negotiate and navigate the challenges for us. It became clear we were relying too heavily on them to solve the issues and we were running out of time and money to get our product on line.

Once we decided to go, there wasn’t much time before we left, since we had a window between tradeshows to go. In about 6 weeks time we got our passports renewed, applied for visas, booked our flight, contacted the three different factories producing our product, and figured out the route for the visits. We planned to be there for a little over 2 weeks.
Official of Hainan Airlines with Sammie and Sax (photo by LivligaHome)
It was an incredible trip, full of memorable moments. We started out the trip by booking with Hainan Airlines through Seattle to Shanghai. It turns out it was their inaugural flight out of Seattle. Prior to boarding the flight, there were ceremonies, speeches, cake, Chinese music played by a live ensemble and many officials from Hainan airlines, Seattle and the airport. We all got inflatable neck pillows and postcards and codes for future discounts. Since it was our inaugural trip to Mainland China, I thought it would be memorable to have our children’s book Sammie and Sax in the Land of Quinoa: The Search for a Balanced Meal photographed with one of the Hainan Airlines officials. He agreed and we promptly tweeted out the moment.

We visited China during the time of year when it is the hottest and most humid. It reminded me of my summers in Kansas City growing up. It meant packing light, and wearing light, drip dry clothes. I gave up curling my hair after the first day and instead changed to pulling it back in a French braid. Key lesson as an entrepreneur—adapt!

We traveled about 2000 miles along the coast of Southern China. That is where all the factories are. It makes sense when you think about it because they are near where the ships load to take the product to other countries, like the USA. At one point we were at the South China Sea, 30 miles away from Vietnam.

Here are highlights of what we learned about doing business in China:
One of the machines used in fabricating our LivSpoons in one of the factories we visited (photo by LivligaHome)
A factory means many things. We found that a “factory” can be anything from a small garage to large warehouse spaces with multiple buildings. We quickly learned that as a start up with the volume of product we are ordering, we have no control over who is really making our product. We may know the lead factory but there may end up being any number of other factories doing a part of the fabricating. For instance, for us there is the cutting of the raw metal, stamping of the bowl of the spoon, then there is the bending of the handle, welding, polishing, printing of the packaging, packing the product in the packaging, to name the biggest steps involved. Each of these processes can represent a different factory. This can present some unique challenges. If the welding is not done well it makes polishing and finishing of the product unsatisfactory. Even the cleanliness of a factory can have an impact on the quality of the finished product. Quality control becomes a moving target. You have to rely on your main factory to hold firm to the required set of standards.

It is more common to tear apart a sample to create molds than to use 3D CAD drawings. As we visited the factories we became more and more aware that the 3D CAD drawings we had sent were not the reference point for the fabrication of our product. Instead they used our samples as their guide. This meant that sometimes parts of the design were missed…like the fact that the handles on our set of spoons are each different. Lesson? Never assume.

When an issue arises it is more likely they will solve it without asking for help or feedback. We couldn’t figure out why as issues arose we were not looked to for discussion and resolution. A great example was the engraving on the back of the spoons with our logo and the designated sizes for each spoon. When we were at one factory to oversee the etchings and to approve them we saw that the font we selected looked off. With some probing we discovered that they could not open the drawings for the etchings in the format we sent them in. Instead of asking us for a different format the engraver ended up redrawing our logo and other markings, spending much time to do so. We discovered that the reason this happened is due to the need to “save face” in the Chinese culture. They would rather find another solution rather than ask you for help. Asking for help is seen as a sign of failure. Lesson? You need to probe and ask questions to make sure your factory has what they need and in a way where that does not diminish them.
Rituaized meals are key to doing successful business in China (photo by LivligaHome).
There is an important ritual embedded in doing business. You remember Mad Men and the lore about the three-hour lunches? Well those lunches still exist in China. It is actually a key part of doing business. It is how relationships are built and the nuances of personalities and approaches are figured out. Being busy Americans we have the tendency to want to truncate this process. I wouldn’t recommend it. It is a great way to get to know with whom you are working and have them get to know you. Since face time is brief when you are on a business trip, the quickest way to get to know someone is actually over a meal. In addition, part of the adventure is trying new foods and eating with chopsticks (I am writing a whole other blog on our experience with food and the Chinese cuisine…stay tuned).

Relationships are still the key to building trust and long term partners for your business. It is hard to get a sense of whom you are working with long distance, particularly if you are working through agents. Understanding the people who are working on your behalf is key to success. We have been learning this up front and personal and the hard way. We have been so fortunate with our relationships with the porcelain factory that has made our dishware. This has not been the case with producing our LivSpoons. The difference? Our relationship with our agents. It is better to get to know the people sooner rather than later and see with your own eyes how things are being handled where your product is being manufactured. We have lost a lot of time and money relying on people we now understand we cannot rely on.

Regular trips to China are a must. We have now learned our lesson. If you are a product based company you have to invest in the relationships responsible for producing your product. Period.

We so enjoyed being in China. We were wowed by the magnitude and size of everything from the roads and buildings to the number of people. A small town in China is considered one with 10 million people. In the cities we visited it was clear there is a strong middle class. The economy seems to be booming with lots of construction, busy malls and lots of “pop up” factories. We found a great affinity with the people we had the privilege to meet who are also working hard to make their businesses grow and succeed.

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